Land of Ancient Wonders

Weathered by eons of rain, wind and sea spray, Australia’s untouched Kimberley is almost as old as the Earth itself

 

The walls of the cave are emblazoned with graffiti so old that no-one can really date these creations with certainty. Some researchers believe the exquisite rock art depictions we’re looking at in The Kimberley could be at least 50,000 years old. Staring at them, we try to imagine the ancient people who came here and painted these intricate murals.

Prehistoric animals, ornately attired hunter figures and mysterious deities of unknown origin all adorn the bare rock face; standing testimony to the tribes who once lived among these rough canyons.

“The Kimberley is one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the world,” says former Chief Scientist of Western Australia, Professor Lyn Beazley AO. “Its biodiversity and marine ecosystem are among the world’s most pristine. The tropical savannahs of the region are the only near-untouched such landscapes left on the planet.”

Travel companies often use the term ‘pristine wilderness’ to describe somewhere away from the souvenir sellers and taxi touts of the world’s overcrowded tourist traps. But in the remote Kimberley region of Australia’s North West, you can be assured that its pristine wilderness is exactly that.

The Kimberley has been voted the top adventure cruise destination for Australians and is quickly establishing itself as a ‘must-do’. A secret well-kept by fishers, prospectors and cattle ranchers for decades, it’s a relatively new region for adventure cruising, explored only by more intrepid travellers over the past 30 years.

While overland travel is also popular, it can be a rough and uncomfortable experience and it’s not without its dangers. This is where the new breed of luxurious small ships come to the fore, offering comfort and sanctuary in a harsh environment. No other cruise line exemplifies this genre of modern, responsible travel better than Ponant.

Away from the crowded, commercialised ports, Ponant vessels are designed to reach remote, otherwise inaccessible locations with ease. They’re large enough to provide space and privacy for those onboard yet, each state-of-the-art vessel is also small enough to venture where mega-ships can never sail.

Excursions take place aboard sturdy Zodiac runabouts, with just a handful of passengers in each boat and an expert interpreter to guide your experience. With 30 years of maritime experience, Ponant is at the forefront of small ship cruising – it’s gleaming, futuristic vessels are equipped with the most advanced technological and environmentally sensitive tools. Guests can expect to receive a supremely comfortable voyage in luxurious surroundings akin to a 5-star hotel.

In 2018, Ponant responded to the urging of its many repeat guests and launched the first of its new Explorer-class ships, which are designed for adventurous voyages to remote or challenging destinations – including the sought-after Polar regions. These new vessels, of which a total of six are planned, are slightly smaller and more agile than the current fleet and have a raft of adventure-specific features such as an innovative underwater viewing lounge (the ‘Blue Eye’), as well as kayaks and paddleboards.

Ponant is also well known for its gastronomy, with menus devised by world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse. There’s also a comprehensive wine cellar aboard every ship, overseen by a knowledgeable sommelier. To bolster the luxury, indulgent spa treatments can be enjoyed after a conscience-cleansing workout in the gym. 

Another clever feature of these new Explorer-class vessels is the hydraulically retractable marina at the stern, where Zodiac tenders are embarked and disembarked. Climbing in and out of tenders can be a nerve-wracking process for less mobile guests, even in the relatively calm waters of the Kimberley.

But this versatile accessory simplifies the procedure considerably, making the overall experience more stress-free and enjoyable. Another thing worth noting is that the vessel dedicated by Ponant to cruising the Kimberley, Le Lapérouse, has a reasonable-sized swimming pool on board. This is much appreciated when you’re craving a relaxing dip in the sun because swimming in the waters off the Kimberley coast is not possible due to the abundance of saltwater crocodiles (a fact that will soon become clear as your expedition guide points out the big reptiles populating the riverbanks).

Ponant’s Iconic Kimberley itinerary is one of the most comprehensive offered by any major cruise operator. In 2020, 11 back-to-back 11-day voyages will take place between May and September, with a different set of excursions every day. The Hunter River, for example, is one of the most picturesque landscapes in the Kimberley, where wild mangrove forests are home to abundant bird species.

“The high point of this voyage,” says veteran expedition leader Mick Fogg, “will undoubtedly be our exploration of the King George River and its majestic twin falls, the highest in Western Australia. “We also visit Collier Bay, the site of the mysterious Montgomery Reef, where the entire marine ecosystem appears to rise from the sea with the falling tide like a reappearing Atlantis.”

Throughout each journey, Le Lapérouse will traverse one of Australia’s most ancient and awe-inspiring coastlines. The Kimberley’s spectacular waterfalls, stark gorges, vast savannah and desolate mountain ranges are all waiting to be explored by one of the world’s most modern, luxurious expedition cruise ships. A visit to the Kimberley is, in every sense, a giant step back in time to a land almost unchanged since dinosaurs roamed these parts. In fact, with a keen eye, you might just spot one.

Click here to find out more about our life-changing journey in 2020 with Ponant and National Geographic.

WORDS: RODERICK EIME

Idyllic Japan

Showcasing its exquisite beauty and distinctive culture, these less-visited destinations will bring you closer to the ‘real’ Japan

 

Here’s a snapshot of what to expect of this one-of-a-kind destination, and where the real Japan comes to life:

Akita

Tucked away in the far north, culture buffs love Akita for many reasons. One is that the rustic town, dubbed Japan’s ‘True North’, is as far away from the country’s big cities as you can get. Also, many of its attractions are natural wonders, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakami Sanchi, where you can see Japan’s last remaining virgin beech forests. If you happen to cruise in spring, it’s also a top spot for viewing the cherry blossoms.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima was the site of the world’s first atomic bomb attack in 1945, but today it’s a thriving modern city. One of its most popular attractions is the centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island, instantly recognisable for its red, floating torii gate. It’s also famous for okonomiyaki, a delicious pancake made with flour, egg, cabbage, pork, shrimp or seafood topped with sweet sauce, mayonnaise, dried seaweed and dried fish flakes.

Miyazaki 

Miyazaki is a popular honeymoon destination for locals, thanks to its balmy climate and lovely beaches. It is home to several ancient shrines, the most important being the Miyazaki-jingu Shrine, built 2600 years ago to honour the former Emperor Jimmu. Miyazaki is also famous for a local tipple called shochu, which is similar to vodka. One of the best places to try shochu is at the Shusen-no-Mori brewery in nearby Aya.

Aomori

Aomori’s autumn foliage is captivating, especially when viewed from a cable car flying across the top of the Hakkoda Mountains. The ‘land of apples’ is also a gateway to uniquely Japanese attractions, including the ancient Hirosaki Castle, which is surrounded by cherry trees, and the Sannai-Maruyama archaeological site that showcases the reconstructed foundations of a Jomon-era settlement.

Kanazawa

This charming fishing port, called ‘Little Kyoto’ by locals, has much to offer the culturally curious visitor — teahouses in Higashi Chaya district, the Nagamachi Samurai District, and the Ninja Temple. Top of your list, however, should be the Kenroku-en garden; built during the Edo period, it is considered to be one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.Toba

Toba is nestled at the north-eastern end of the Shima Peninsula, a castle town and seaside city where locals believe that gods reside. It’s also a gateway to the magnificent Ise-jingu shrine, a collection of 125 sacred shrines that spans an area the size of the centre of Paris. More than 1500 rituals are held here every year, for the prosperity of the Imperial family and world peace.

Otaru

Walking among Otaru’s network of canals, it’s impossible not to be enchanted by beautiful heritage buildings and mansions that bring Japan’s history to life. Located near Sapporo, it’s also a popular spot for anyone who has a sweet tooth – the town has lots of irresistible bakeries.

Okinawa

Having its own language, music, traditions, arts and crafts makes the Okinawa group of islands distinctly different from mainland Japan. A key attraction for visitors is Shuri Castle – a former hilltop palace of the Ryukyu Dynasty, the UNESCO World Heritage Site was almost destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa. It is now home to lovingly restored buildings.Tokushima

This 16th-century castle town is best known for a colourful mid-August dance festival, Awa Odori, which attracts many spectators and dancers for the traditional ‘Fool’s Dance’. Tokushima is also blessed with natural wonders, including the spectacular gorge and intricate vine bridges of the remote Iya Valley, and the whirlpools of Naruto.

Hakodate

Hakodate, which sprawls across two bays, is famous for views of towering Mount Hakodate – accessible by the Ropeway cable car– spectacular landscapes and superb fresh seafood. On any given day here you can wander past historic red-brick warehouses on the waterfront, explore the architecture of the Motomachi district, or walk through Fort Goryokaku, a huge star-shaped citadel and Japan’s first Western-style fortress.

Cruising onboard the glamorous Diamond Princess will give nature-loving travellers the opportunity to head off the beaten track and experience the true wonders of this idyllic country. 

Visit www.cruiseexpress.com.au/cruise-list/blossoms-of-japan-2020/ to find out more about our

Blossoms of Japan 2020 fully escorted tour.

 

Words courtesy of Joanna Hill.

Pacific War History

Brought to Life

 

One of the final frontiers of the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea is a naturally beautiful, historically and culturally rich destination.

Unknown to many people, New Guinea was the site of conflict during both World War I and World War II, says Mat McLachlan, founder of Australia’s leading battlefield tour company, Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours and host of the Mat McLachlan WW2 History Cruise. In fact, the Anzacs’ very first action during World War I was not Gallipoli, but New Guinea.

New Guinea during WWI

The North-Eastern part of the island of New Guinea, plus a number of nearby islands, was part of the German colonial empire. This section of the island had been operated by a German protectorate from 1884, before it was taken by Australian troops in 1914.

In mid-August that year, just weeks after the outbreak of the World War I, 2000 soldiers and naval reservists set sail from Sydney Harbour to German New Guinea. The objective was to seize and destroy German radio stations transmitting from the island, ahead of the departure of Australian troopships for Europe and the Middle East. On 11 September 1914, 25 men went ashore at Rabaul to take out the Bita Paka wireless station. Although the mission was a success, the Battle of Bita Paka saw the first Australian soldiers die fighting for their country.

 

Japanese invasion

On 23 January 1942, the Japanese invaded New Guinea — landing at Rabual on the island of New Britain. The first coastal village to be captured by the Japanese, it was turned into a fortress so impregnable that the Allies never attempted to capture it. A massive military complex serving more than 97,000 Japanese soldiers and thousands of accompanying personnel, it was the main Japanese base in the South Pacific.

To guard against air bombardment, the Japanese dug 800 kilometres of tunnels to house their command centres, barracks, storehouses, and a hospital. The tunnels are still there and there are numerous war sites to see in and around the town.

Milne Bay was another key strategic point for World War II in the Pacific. Australian troops arrived in Milne Bay in June 1942 and worked alongside American comrades, carving roads and three airstrips out of jungle and swamp. For the Japanese, it was essential to claim this region back to progress their takeover.

During the night of 25 August 1942, 2,000 Japanese marines attacked the Allied base. The ensuing battle lasted three weeks and the Allies claimed victory. Today, remnants of Japanese landing barges used in the battle can still be seen.

“The Battle of Milne Bay was a turning point in the Pacific War as it was the first time the Allied forces decisively defeated a Japanese offensive on land. This battle largely marked the beginning of the end for World War II in the Pacific,” says Mat.

To find out more about the Mat McLachlan Battlefield Tours WW2 History Cruise, head to www.cruiseexpress.com.au/cruise-list/ww2-history-cruise/

Words courtesy of Mat McLachlan

The Enchantments of Japan

 

For several years now Cruise Express has been traveling throughout Japan, escorting hundreds of clients who have returned with cameras full of stunning imagery and minds full of unforgettable memories.

While Japan has increasingly become a bucket-list travel destination, our travel specialists are asked what the key attractions are for this somewhat mystical island nation. In no particular order, outlined below are a few of the sights and sounds our clients time and time again treasure:

Shrines & Temples

Two of the most common historical buildings you will find in Japan are temples and shrines, with over 2,000 in Kyoto alone, there are literally millions of different sizes and significance scattered throughout. They are not the same but what is the difference between the two?

Basically, temples are Buddhist, while shrines are Shinto. Temples have monks and often many Buddhist statues and sometimes have a graveyard attached on the site. Buddhism was originally brought from India to China during the Heian era, then spread throughout Japan.

Shrines are easy to identify as they generally have a large, often vermilion red sacred gate, standing in front of them.  Unlike Buddhism, Shintoism is indigenous to Japan, and is as old as Japan itself. It is believed that everything has a spirit, even stones, trees and mountains. It is believed there are millions of gods throughout Japan. Spirits of nature and ancestors are highly revered above all else.

A large number of wedding ceremonies are held in Shinto style. Death, however, is considered a source of impurity and is left to Buddhism to deal with. Consequently, there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries, and most funerals are held in Buddhist style.

Mount Fuji

No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to the country’s most symbolic geographical landmark, revered since ancient times, culturally, spiritually and physically. At 3,776 metres high, Mt Fuji is the highest mountain in Japan and a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site since 2013.

It’s not always easy to see this dormant volcano (no eruptions since 1707) though, as the weather and seasons can sometimes keep the mountain shrouded in clouds for days or weeks. While it seems that on average, early morning is the best visibility from Tokyo on a clear day (approximately 100km away) typically from autumn to winter – in particular, December and January are usually the best months for visibility.

Undoubtedly, Mt Fuji is the most popular tourist site in Japan, for both foreigners and Japanese, particularly in springtime when cherry blossoms frame the snowy mountain in full bloom shades of pinks and whites.

Upwards of 300,000 people every year embark on what many call a gruelling eight-hour climb to the summit, but the achievement and stunning sunrises are well worth it. It is often regarded as a sacred pilgrimage to summit the mountain with thousands of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples along the way. Naturally, these climbs are usually done in the warmer months particularly between July and August, with lots of ‘huts’ to rest and refresh, so if a good hike is on your agenda then this may be the perfect destination for you!

Sumo Wrestling

Sumo is Japan’s national sport and the only country in the world where it is practiced professionally. Although many consider it a modern form of martial art, this unique style of wrestling (men only in competition and ceremonies) actually originated as a Shinto religious ritual over 1,500 years ago to ensure a bountiful harvest and to honour the spirits – known as kami.

It is considered a trial of strength in combat and the rules, although having changed throughout history, are relatively simple. The first wrestler who has any part of his body touching the ground (soles of feet excluded),  thrown to the ground or who steps out of the ring, is defeated – game over – many matches only last for a handful of seconds!

Most of us are curious as to why Sumo wrestlers are so ‘fat’ – can’t be healthy surely? In fact, the early wrestlers were more wiry and muscular than today. This has occurred only in the 20th century since there are no weight divisions in professional sumo, every wrestler wants to be as big as they can be to use their weight in the ring.

These tournaments really do sell out quickly so please ensure you buy your tickets before you leave home unless you are on a Cruise Express escorted tour as this will be managed for you.

Cherry Blossom Time

Every spring in Japan the country comes alive in clouds of delicate pink and white as cherry trees blossom with new life – The Sakura Season – a truly symbolic image of this island nation.

The cherry blossom season is undoubtedly the highlight of the Japanese calendar and has been celebrated for hundreds of years. In addition to innovation, neon lights and sushi, the Japanese have long been known as leaders of cherry blossom appreciation.

It is really hard to predict when they will open and be at full bloom as it really is weather dependent – that week fluctuation of earlier or later is impossible to guess. Fortunately, geographical location is a reliable factor in determining blossom-time. The south always begins a lot earlier, often in January, while in the very north, it can be as late as May!

At the end of the day, picking the exact time to see cherry blossoms is not easy or guaranteed, particularly on a short trip. To avoid disappointment, we recommend you plan your holiday around so many other fabulous things Japan has to offer, and if you happen to time the blossoms right then consider it a wonderful bonus!

Shinkansen Bullet Trains

Shinkansen, translated to “New Trunkline” and quickly dubbed globally as the “Bullet Train” for obvious reasons, was originally built and operated by government-owned Japanese National Railways in 1964 and has been part of the Japan Railways Group since 1987.

The first 515km section of the original line between Tokyo and Osaka was opened in 1964, just before the start of the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. The many innovations including kilometre long welded sections of track and prestressed concrete ties were internationally acclaimed.

Although very expensive, one incredible invention has been ‘Maglev’, a railway based on magnetic levitation. Electromagnets levitate the train slightly above the tracks and without the friction of typical rail, it’s these magnets that create the thrust that moves the train.

Interestingly, the initial concept pre-WWII was to run lines to Beijing, a tunnel to Korea and Singapore, and build connections to the Trans-Siberian Railway and other lines throughout Asia. Due to the worsening of Japan’s position in 1943, these plans were abandoned.

What did continue to develop was 2,765km of railway throughout Japan connecting distant towns, islands and cities to the capital to promote growth and development. Since inception, and now with speeds up to 320km per hour, the Shinkansen has carried over 10 billion passengers and there has never been a fatality due to a train accident such as a collision or derailment, despite all the typhoons and earthquakes Japan endures.

Sushi Making

Last but not least, what’s a visit to Japan without a class in how to make sushi. This is always a hit with Cruise Express clients, even those that don’t eat sushi have a great time, learn new skills to take home to impress family and friends, but most importantly have a lot of laughs. Ask about gold leaf painting classes too!

Click here to find out more about our 2020 escorted holiday to Japan that is selling fast!

Japan in Full Bloom

Lasting for only a week or two, every spring with clear blue skies, Japan comes alive in clouds of delicate pink and white as cherry trees blossom with new life – Sakura – a truly symbolic image of this island nation and a dream destination for any photographer. We love the cherry blossoms of Japan!

The cherry blossom season is undoubtedly the highlight of the Japanese calendar and has been celebrated for hundreds of years. In addition to innovation, neon lights and sushi, the Japanese have long been known as leaders of cherry blossom appreciation.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

Increasingly, the people of Japan celebrate this beautiful change of seasons with cherry blossom (and also pretty but to a lesser extent, plum blossoms) appreciation parties, picnics and even street festivals called ‘Hanami’ (flower viewing). Families and friends get together in these blossoming gardens to stop and reflect on the beauty of life and its changing nature. This is not a new tradition, there are records dating back to the eighth century of imperial courtiers celebrating with picnics and poetry.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

So, when is the best time to see Sakura in full-bloom? While the temperatures coming out of winter is a factor, the geographical location is key to determining blossom-time.  In the north, this can be as late as May while in the south of Okinawa, it can open as early as January! Typically for the rest of the country including Osaka, Hiroshima and Kyoto, very late March to early April is a safe bet to see mother nature at her utmost prettiest!

We love ‘Hanami’ (flower viewing) in so many areas of Japan including Tokyo and Osaka, as well as Mt Fuji and her Five Lakes, yet one of the most outstanding has to be Hiroshima, a city that quietly demands reflection and appreciation. With hundreds of shrines and temples, Kyoto is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and is also a truly magical destination during the cherry blossom season.

Japan Cherry Blossoms

Truly steeped in culture and tradition, Japan is increasingly a popular tourist destination. If you are planning on visiting this stunning nation, there is of course much more to see and do other than the cherry blossoms, depending on what time of the year you plan to visit. We love the ski fields of Hokkaido or Honshu, Onsens, snow monkeys in Nagano, sumo wrestlers, sushi making classes, tea ceremonies, Shinkansen bullet trains and of course the countless shrines and palaces.

To join one of our fully escorted tours to Japan please call 1300 766 537 or click here.

To see more photos of one of our recent 2019 tours, please click here.

Japan Cherry Blossoms